The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is celebrating 60 years this season.
On a recent visit to Miami, Artistic Director Robert Battle said the company is rooted in a deep history of addressing social justice through dance. Dance, he said, is a form of both protest and celebration.
In past works the company has explored the civil rights movement, black womanhood and mass incarceration.
Ahead of the their performances at the Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts, WLRN’s Nadege Green talked with Battle about this 60-year milestone and the company’s history.
WLRN: The Alvin Ailey Dance Company is celebrating 60 years. Sixty years is a really big milestone.
Battle: This is a historic year for the company that was founded in 1958 by Alvin Ailey on the brink of the civil rights movement. And so for the 60th we really wanted to hear his voice in a way and I asked Renee Harris to do a work inspired by the life of Alvin Ailey.
This work looks at Alvin Ailey's life not in a linear way, but in an introspective way. You see images of the civil rights movement, you see images of lynchings, you see images of the Great Migration, of the middle passage, you see all of this that Alvin Ailey either experienced or it's his blood memories that is in this work.
And so the first part is heavy, not unlike the times in which we live, and then the second part is a celebration. You know it's house — so if you like house music or house dance, this is it. And it's really a celebration of tenacity of the human spirit.
Tell me a bit more about the role that history plays for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Over time, certainly when you think about Alvin Ailey's masterpiece "Revelations" that we do in every program — like the one that I saw when I was a kid growing up here in Liberty City when the company came touring through town [that] reminded me of our history as African-Americans. It's a suite of spirituals and we know the role that Negro spirituals played for our people.
"Cry" was choreographed by Judith Jamison, the legendary Judith Damson, and on every program [it says] that that piece is "dedicated to black women everywhere, especially our mothers." And the piece really looks at the history being brought over from Africa on a slave ship, forced into servitude or worse, but at the end it's "Right on Be Free."
You get this sense of history through not only the historic works, but also there's a work that we're doing by a choreographer from the U.K. His name is Wayne McGregor. Now, he is the resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet. I'm saying all this to set it up. His work tends to come out of the ballet idiom, but kind of break through that. And for black dancers, especially for people of color, there is this idea that we can't do that. Or we not expected to do that. We still see some of that same ignorance perpetuated.
And so what I'm expressing is the versatility of my dancers in that they can get down and they can get up, hit that line, you know. So I'm always making a statement about history even when it's something new through the storytelling of the dances that the company does.
We see sadness, we see grief, but there is so much that is specifically black joy. Talk a little bit about that, needing to see black joy on stage as well.
You know, I think even in my own family, I can go more personally, even when there's something tragic going on somebody cracks a joke or says something and we all laugh while crying, but there is that sense that the joy is almost a form of resistance.
If You Go
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Feb 14- Feb 17
Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, arshtcenter.org